Manish Mundra, the man behind Drishyam Films and celebrated movies like Ankhon Dekhi (2014), Masaan (2015) and Newton (2017), started out in the petrochemical industry. Even as a child, Mundra says he was acutely aware that making films costs money and this is why he decided that he’d first earn big bucks through the corporate route and then return to cinema, his one true love. After almost a decade as a producer, Mundra makes his directorial debut with Siya, starring Pooja Pandey and Vineet Kumar Singh. The film is about the life of a rape survivor who is determined to secure justice for herself. It’s a difficult subject, for both a director and also the actors, particularly for Pandey who plays the titular role. Singh was a great help on set and helped “guide the newcomers”, Mundra said. At the moment, on the eve of Siya’s release, Mundra is already looking ahead. He told us he’s already finished the screenplay for his next film — it’s a love story — and intends to start shooting in January 2023.
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation with Mundra.
What about Siya drew you to it?
I felt that it is important to talk about the survivor and the family and what they go through. Rape is a heinous crime and it is done by whoever has power. It can be money or education or whatever they have. They think they can do anything in terms of victimising a woman and can get away with it because they have the power and nobody will talk. The survivor and the family have a choice — to see if they want to talk about it, if they want to seek justice or if they want to keep silent. If they decide to take a path of seeking justice it is very tough in the sense that they don’t get that closure and they have to fight through these people who become very antagonistic in terms of pressure tactics, harming the family, and creating roadblocks. That is where I wanted to take the audience and sit along with the family and the survivor through the journey of what happens post the crime.
The film tackles a lot of sensitive issues. How did you deal with it in a way that ensured it was appropriate?
Yes, it is a sensitive subject, I knew that from the beginning. That is why I wanted to stay away from preaching and from trying to set things in a very agenda-driven manner. I wanted to have a truthful story and I was very clear and confident about how I wanted to say this. For example, we did not use a single cuss word in the film. I did not want to ruin the image of the village, court, individual or the police. I did not want to show them in a negative light. I just wanted to show that there is something wrong somewhere and why people who are supposed to protect us sometimes ignore that duty.
What prompted you to try your hand at direction?
It was always in my mind to make films, but since I am not schooled in cinema, it becomes difficult to make that transition. The best thing I thought was to identify good filmmakers, writers and directors and help make those films, get into the industry and understand its nuances. Over the years, I met a lot of directors and saw a lot of films being shot. By being on the sets and on edit tables, I gained confidence. I waited for the right subject. When Siya turned up, I thought it was the right subject for me to direct.
What are you looking for in a story? How does it differ when you are looking at it as a producer and as a director?
As a director, I think I will continue to make issue-based content. That is where I can take up that risk of being a director and a producer because I do not want to look at the commercial aspect of it, but rather the technical one in terms of how the story is being told. Maybe five years down the line, I will not talk like this and be wise enough but today, I would make issue-based content as a director. And as a producer, I am open to any idea that is soulful and touches me. The best thing is to identify a story, to find something new and say, ‘I want to do this’.
You have been called the messiah of independent Indian cinema by some publications. What do you think of that?
I don't think I am eligible for that sort of title. But I feel as an individual I had the objective to create good cinema and was very clear about consistency, that it is not a one-time affair and that we need to continuously create cinema backed with proper content and stories which we can call soulful. When I look back today and see around the very few independent filmmakers who are left, who continue to make films, I feel sad about that. Independent films are important for film culture and the lack of small and medium films and dependence on blockbusters or big-budget films creates a sort of dearth or drought in the talent pool. It creates a dearth of story writers, and content writers and that is what we are facing right now. We need more independent filmmakers to create smaller and medium films. We need these films to be watched, viewed and given that respect and space.
How challenging is it for an independent Indian film to get recognition?
The biggest challenge for the independent filmmaker is to find screens and compete with big-budget films in terms of the visibility of the product. In a week if there are 10 films and two are big-budget, they have mighty resources in their hand to wipe off the other eight and they won't be seen anywhere. We have to develop our own audience internationally. Right now we are very myopically focussed on India or the non-resident Indians, but we haven't crossed through the nationalities and borders and reached an audience that is wider. What Iranian, Korean, French or Hollywood cinema has done for that matter — that is where the market is. Good Lebanese cinema is crossing borders, reaching out to people and creating waves and that is where we fail. If we focus on content and bring in cross-border technicians, or cross-border pollinations as I call it, to create world-class films I am sure that we can have a vast audience and scope in terms of business.
To what extent do you think it is the responsibility of a filmmaker to make issue-based films?
Films, like other things, have a responsibility because they are a part of society. Let's say even if you are in the fertiliser industry or you are in the plastic industry — you are in a society and you need to fulfil certain norms. You will not manufacture fertilisers which will create problems and that is your responsibility, to ensure that what you are doing doesn’t have a detrimental effect on society. Similarly, film is a part of society and when we make a film, in a way we care about the fact that we contribute back to society in a positive way. If not positive, at least we provide entertainment, but we don't create stuff which is detrimental to peace and harmony and the sentiments of the people. That is our responsibility as filmmakers, to be a part of society we need to contribute in a positive way.